Labor activists are continuing their attempt to expand the definition of an "employee" and are now targeting disabled and other workers.
Peckham Inc., a private nonprofit that provides vocational rehabilitation and job training, is being targeted for unionization.
Located near Capital City Airport in Lansing, Peckham has 1,100 clients it works with. They are people with disabilities or other conditions that make finding employment difficult. Peckham classifies the workers as clients rather than employees and they are being rehabilitated or trained for possible entry into the job market. Under the program, they receive various levels of payment for their efforts. The products made at Peckham are chiefly produced under government contracts.
"Peckham is committed to maintaining a respectful environment for our clients, who are persons with disabilities and other barriers to employment, involved in paid job training programs," said Bonnie Zimmerman, Peckham's public relations administrator. "We will continue to provide and maintain a supportive, flexible and positive work environment."
Lansing Workers’ Center and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers are behind the effort to get the trainees at Peckham into a union. Those unions helped form the United Peckham Employees Association, and are helping the group distribute union authorization cards among program participants. Signing an authorization card indicates support for United Peckham as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for those being rehabilitated and trained.
If enough signatures are gathered, the next step would be turning them over to Michigan employment relations officials. If the unionization effort reaches that stage the issue of whether the Peckham clients are even eligible to be considered "employees" likely will arise.
However, Michigan's employment relations officials have established a pattern of buying into union efforts to expand the definition of employees. They allowed unions to classify as employees people who run daycares out of their homes, people who take care of needy loved ones in their homes and graduate student research assistants at the University of Michigan. However, those groups were all later determined ineligible to be classified as state employees.
With this as a backdrop, Peckham appears to be working to prevent the unionization by discussing the potential ramifications with its clients.
"Peckham has a long and proud history of helping people with disabilities gain a foothold in the world of work," Zimmerman said. "While we respect the right of individuals to organize, we will continue to work hard to ensure that all clients have the information and resources they need to make an informed decision."
According to news accounts, those backing the unionization effort have accused Peckham of paying "starvation wages" and, in some cases, payment below minimum wage. They also claim Peckham has retaliated by laying off some of those in the job traing programs who support unionization.
Peckham denies using layoffs as retaliation and blames recent layoffs on a decrease in government contracts. Company officials also point out that they have trouble competing for private contracts due to the company's low productivity rate. This low productivity is to be expected considering the products are made by people who are disabled or in training.
Union organizer Mike Kolhoff, with the Lansing Workers’ Center, could not be reached for comment. However, the Lansing Workers' Center website features the unionization effort at Peckham.